Art: Poster Boy

  • Jeff Matthews

From 1924 to 1928, moviegoers in Rochester, N.Y., enjoyed a rare and magnificent sight: seven or eight new hand-painted movie posters every week, created by local artist Batiste Madalena for Kodak founder George Eastman’s movie theater. "Eastman decided to build the greatest movie palace ever," says retired documentary filmmaker Steven Katten, who brought Madalena’s work to public attention in the 1970s. "One of his premises for that was not to use the lithographed material that was distributed by the studios, because his theater was different from all other theaters. He hired this guy, as a Medici would have in Renaissance times, as an artist in residence in this movie palace."

When Eastman sold the theater, though, Madalena’s tenure ended, and his stunning posters were replaced by standard Hollywood publicity releases. The tale of the posters would have ended there, with the theater’s new management tossing them in the alley for the garbage collector, if not for a quirk of fate. Ron Magliozzi, an assistant curator of research and collection at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), tells the story: "Madalena comes riding by on his bicycle one day after work and sees the posters in the back alley. He calls his wife right over, and they rescue as many as they can, but his posters were being rained on. You can actually see that some of the posters have stains on them and are bleeding paint. He took them home, dried them off, and then put them in his attic."

And there they stayed for about 50 years, until Madalena’s daughter lent some of them to a bank-lobby exhibit of Rochester-area art that Katten happened to see. He was so enchanted with the works that he tracked Madalena down, and, over the course of a few years, Katten and his wife, Judith, bought the entire collection of 224 surviving pieces.

In devising a plan for their collection, they settled on garnering the widest exposure they could—"because if they had so entranced me," Katten says, "presumably somebody else in the universe would feel the same way." In fact, many people did. The Kattens managed to get a traveling exhibition of the work underwritten by Warner Communications and then chose New York gallery Hirschl & Adler to represent the collection for sale. They also wrote a book on Madalena, which was published by Harry N. Abrams, and placed some of the posters in permanent collections at MoMA, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The Kattens’ efforts to proclaim Madalena’s genius culminate in a solo show at MoMA from October 15 to April 6. The exhibition will feature 53 posters, with Magliozzi as curator. (Hirschl & Adler will also have a satellite show of its Madalena stock from November 15 to January 3, with prices beginning at $9,000.) Magliozzi is particularly excited about a grouping of posters with giant faces on them: "They actually remind me of a Warhol—not that they’re at all like a Warhol painting, but they are, in a sense of color, because Warhol used very bold colors. Warhol loved celebrity faces. Madalena posters have that same impact on the eye."

Katten, for his part, is thrilled that the posters are finally receiving the recognition he has always thought they deserved. "They were basically lost," he says, "rediscovered by Madalena, then in essence lost in the attic, and rediscovered by my wife and myself. And now rediscovered by MoMA, if you will."

Museum of Modern Art, 212.708.9400, www.moma.org;?? Hirschl & Adler, 212.535.8810, www.hirschlandadler.com

Photo by Richard P. Goodbody Inc.
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